Final Days

May 29, 2013

Square by the Abbey in Old Nice, France

Square by the Abbey in Old Nice, France

The final days of my vacation were rather anti-climactic after the exhilaration of seeing Iceland for the first time, spending nearly two weeks travelling with my sister, and realizing my dream of hiking the Goldsworthy trail in France.  Still, it was nice not to have to rush back without a couple of unscheduled days to make the transition to my regular life.  I spent one night in Nice, France and another in Amsterdam before catching the long flight home to Seattle.

I love the soft color palette of the Mediterranean.  The buildings in Nice, especially in the Old City, were lovely pastel yellows, apricot, peach, blues and greens.  Very picturesque.

Narrow street in Old Nice

Narrow street in Old Nice

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The Cours Saleya

The Cours Saleya

Line-drying laundry

Line-drying laundry

Cafe on the Cours Saleya

Cafe on the Cours Saleya

Peonies in the Marches aux Fleurs

Peonies in the Marches aux Fleurs

Street entertainment

Street entertainment

The Mediterranean Sea, Nice

The Mediterranean Sea, Nice

Balcony, Old Nice

Balcony, Old Nice

Over Iceland on the flight home

Over Iceland on the flight home

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“There is this form I can’t stop making which is really snakelike, but I often think of it as a river.  It’s the idea of fluidity that is the connection, but I’m not really talking about  a river either.  It’s the movement that interests me.”
— Andy Goldsworthy, Wall

Andy Goldsworthy clay wall sculpture in the Vieil Esclangon Art Refuge

Andy Goldsworthy clay wall sculpture in the Vieil Esclangon Art Refuge

On Days 3, 4 and 5 of our hike, we saw five Goldsworthy works installed in Refuges d’Art, small buildings or shelters, where individuals are allowed to camp overnight.  Our hiking trails took us up and down mountains, across rivers and creeks, with some of the most spectacular scenery of my trip.

We returned to the wild valley of Vancon and hiked to the Church in the abandoned hamlet of Forest.  The ruins of the church were restored to house a Goldsworthy wall sculpture, another recessed elliptical space.  In contrast to the one at the Chapelle Saint Madeleine, this one was a light hole in a dark wall.

Goldsworthy installation in the Church of Forest

Goldsworthy installation in the Church of Forest

Old cruxifix over a grave outside the church

Old crucifix over a grave outside the church

Goldsworthy wall sculpture

Goldsworthy wall sculpture

Lunch break and nap in the hamlet of Forest

Lunch break and nap in the hamlet of Forest

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We hiked high in the mountains along an old “tax trail” to the abandoned village of Faissal.  We seemed to climb ever higher, with grand views of the distant Alps and curious mountain goats watching us from the summit of an adjacent mountain.  And then down, down again.

“Hill and valley followed valley and hill.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, from Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Hiking is much too absorbing to allow much thinking, I’ve found.  I moved through the day, step by step, always alert to where I was planting my feet.  I didn’t want to slip on a loose rock and fall or hurt myself.  I was very much in the moment, a satisfying feeling.

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Blue doors on ruin, the village of Faissal

Blue doors on ruin, the village of Faissal

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The refuge at Vieil Esclangon

The refuge at Vieil Esclangon

Goldsworthy river-like clay sculpture

Goldsworthy river-like clay sculpture

Goldsworthy sculpture with x-ray effect

Goldsworthy sculpture with x-ray effect

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The Refuge of Eschuichiere featured two rooms with wall art fashioned by Goldsworthy of rock with natural lines of contrasting color.

“Stretching out lines that already exist interests me more than imagining new ones.  I have made lines that explore and follow the contours of a rock, the edge of a river, the growth of a branch, the junction between house and street . . . The intention is not just to make a line, but to draw the change, movement, growth and decay that flow through a place.”
— Andy Goldsworthy, Wall

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At the end of Day 5, our guide Eric drove us in the van to the farm Belon, which was formerly owned by one of the leaders of the French Resistance in WWII.  In the basement we found several of Goldsworthy’s stone arches.  One of our hikers, Michele, mused about the significance of this “underground” space and its resonance with the “underground” resistance movement.

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I found the entire five-day hiking experience very rewarding.  Not only did I get to see some Goldsworthy art that I would never have been able to find on my own, I also enjoyed the company of some French natives on their home turf.  It made me realize how difficult it is for me when travelling to spend ordinary time with local people.  Typically I am staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and going to tourist sites — with a bunch of other tourists.  With this guided hike, I had the unusual (for me) opportunity to keep company with some interesting French people, share home-cooked meals at farm tables with them, and even sleep in shared rooms in auberges and gites.  I found that they are great conversationalists (even though I could not understand or speak French, they made an effort to speak English from time to time, and I watched their lively conversations with interest), they were enthusiastic eaters and enjoyed leisurely meals together, they were well read, and they liked President Obama!

Andy Goldsworthy sentinel near Authon

Andy Goldsworthy sentinel near Authon

Andy Goldsworthy built three sentinels in this part of France, and we hiked to two of them — the Authon sentinel on Day 2 and the sentinel in the valley of Bes on Day 4.  All are accessible by road, but Jean-Pierre felt that hiking to them would give us a better feel for the land elements that inspired Goldsworthy.  The sentinels stand like guardians in the landscape.  Although there is no mortar in the stacked stones, they are solidly built — sturdy and steadfast.

Day 2 was perhaps the most challenging day of hiking for me.  We were on the trail from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  Jean-Pierre had to make last-minute changes to our planned itinerary.  We were to have sheltered for the night in one of the Refuges d’Art (huts that housed a Goldsworthy sculpture), but the mountain road was too muddy, and it was impossible to get a vehicle up there with our heavy bags and camping supplies.  The adapted itinerary kept us hiking, sometimes off trail, and through more difficult terrain, for a longer-than-normal day.  At times I felt like a mountain goat!  My worst moment was slipping on a rock and stepping one foot into slimy, smelly swamp sludge.  There was also a scary traverse across scree, short, but Jean-Pierre escorted us safely across one by one.  I had a terrific workout, and the reward for the day’s efforts was seeing the first of Andy Goldsworthy’s sentinels.

Terrain Day 2

Terrain Day 2

The Vancon Valley

The Vancon Valley

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I found this shell fossil in a rock along the trail.  This part of France has many fossil sites.

I found this shell fossil in a rock along the trail. This part of France has many fossil sites.

Cherry blossoms near our lunchtime picnic spot

Cherry blossoms near our lunchtime picnic spot

Guide, Jean-Pierre

Guide, Jean-Pierre

First glimpse of the sentinel near Authon

First glimpse of the sentinel near Authon

This sentinel is situated in an open space at a curve in the road.

This sentinel is situated in an open space at a curve in the road.

The shape of the sentinel mimics a distant mountain peak.

The shape of the sentinel mimics a distant mountain peak.

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That's me with the sentinel!

That’s me with the sentinel!

Sunset at the sentinel

Sunset at the sentinel

On Day 4, after another day of hiking, we saw a second Goldsworthy sentinel in the valley of Bes.  This one was situated in a natural alcove in the looming rock.  It felt like a tiny beacon in a dominating landscape, and yet it felt protected, sheltered and cocooned.

First glimpse of the second sentinel

First glimpse of the second sentinel

The valley of Bes

The valley of Bes

Goldsworthy's sentinel, valley of Bes

Goldsworthy’s sentinel, valley of Bes

Again, the top of the sentinel echoed the shape of a distant peak.

Again, the top of the sentinel echoed the shape of a distant peak.

View from the trail near Courbons

View from the trail near Courbons

Signpost along the trail; we hiked from Courbons to Thoad on Day 1

Signpost along the trail; we hiked from Courbons to Thoad on Day 1

I signed up for this guided hike for the chance to see Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures, but I was blown away by the spectacular scenery.  On Day 1, we hiked from the village of Courbons to Thoard.  Our destination was the tiny Chapelle Saint Madeleine, perched near the summit of a hill/mountain, which featured a wall sculpture by Goldsworthy.

The marked trail took us up over the hilltops and gave us awesome views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains.  It continued through a forest of beech trees; the fallen beech leaves provided a soft, but slippery, cushion of padding on the path.  I was challenged to keep up with the group, all experienced and hearty hikers, but I was exhilarated at the same time to be in France, on this hike — a dream coming true.

View at the start of the hike, up from the village of Courbons

View at the start of the hike, up from the village of Courbons

Mistletoe along the trail -- it was a common sight

Mistletoe along the trail — it was a common sight

Wildflower (windflower?)

Wildflower (windflower?)

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Trail through a beech forest

Trail through a beech forest

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Near the end of the day’s hike, we approached the tiny Chapelle Saint Madeleine via a gravel road that passed lavender fields.  The chapel, like many of the buildings in this area, had a tile roof of the most pleasing orangy colors.  The tiles were held down with stones.  Inside, on the wall where the altar would have been, was a recessed elliptical-shaped space large enough to stand in.  Goldsworthy intended this as an introspective space, a contrast to the vast expanse of the vista looking down into the valley just outside the door.

The road to Chapelle Saint Madeleine near Thoard

The road to Chapelle Saint Madeleine near Thoard

Our destination for Day 1, Andy Goldsworthy's wall art in this chapel

Our destination for Day 1, Andy Goldsworthy’s wall art in this chapel

Tile roof, exquisite colors

Tile roof, exquisite colors

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Andy Goldsworthy wall sculpture, Chapelle Saint Madeleine

Andy Goldsworthy wall sculpture, Chapelle Saint Madeleine

View down the valley from the Chapelle Saint Madeleine

View down the valley from the Chapelle Saint Madeleine

The days final steps, walking to the cottage Bannette, our farmhouse lodging for the night

The day’s final steps, walking to the cottage Bannette, our farmhouse lodging for the night

On the scenic Train des Pignes

On the scenic Train des Pignes

After almost two weeks together, my sister and I parted ways.  She returned to the kibbutz in Israel, and I flew to Nice, France for the next leg of my journey, a five-day guided hiking expedition along the trails in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence that featured several land art installations by the artist Andy Goldsworthy.   I had long wanted to see some of Goldsworthy’s work, especially after seeing the movie Rivers and Tides about his unique vision.  When I ran across some newspaper articles (here and here) about the Refuges d’Art and Goldsworthy sculptures along a trail in France, I added this experience to my wish list of things to do before I die.

So I was very much looking forward to the France part of my vacation, although I did not have many details about the hike itself.  I did not know who else might have signed up and I knew little about the area.  My guide, Jean-Pierre Brovelli of etoile-rando.com, was taking care of all meals, lodging, transportation and logistics.  All I had to do was to show up in Digne on the morning of our first hike.

I took the little scenic train, the Train des Pignes, from Nice to Digne, enjoying the warmer Mediterranean weather, the blooming lilacs and wisteria, the green grassy pastures, orchards of white blossoms, and villages (Entrevaux and Puget-Theniers looked especially interesting) from the train windows.  I arrived in Digne in the late afternoon, and had time for a short walk around the town before turning in early.  I wanted to sleep well before the hiking started the next day.

In the morning, I was met at the hotel by Jean-Pierre and then the rest of our group made introductions.  There were five other hikers, all French, four women and one man, and I was heartened to see that they were all roughly my age.  We would be lead by Jean-Pierre and his fellow guide, Eric.  I felt we were in good hands.

Old shuttered buildings, Digne

Old shuttered buildings, Digne

The Boulevard Gassendi in Digne, lined by trees with their branches lopped off

The Boulevard Gassendi in Digne, lined by trees with their branches lopped off

Trees were in bud

Trees were in bud

I loved the rustic, weathered shutters

I loved the rustic, weathered shutters

Weathered blue doors

Weathered blue doors

Wall mural in the breakfast room at my hotel, the Hotel de Provence, Digne

Wall mural in the breakfast room at my hotel, the Hotel de Provence, Digne

Le Road Trip by Vivian Swift

“Hasten slowly . . . See as much of life as possible, but take time to notice it, too.”
— Vivian Swift, Le Road Trip

Inside pages from Le Road Trip

Another two-page spread from Le Road Trip

I love everything about Vivian Swift‘s new book, Le Road Trip.  It’s a book about her honeymoon trip to France, and while I wouldn’t mind following Swift’s itinerary (she makes all those villages and encounters with French people so beguiling), it is much more than a travel guide.  Swift describes her book as an “art of travel” kind of book, and it is full of her observations about the pleasures and pains of traveling with a companion and philosophical musings about “slow” travel.  I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who makes watercolor sketches in a travel journal, and Le Road Trip is full of exquisite paintings that depict exactly the kinds of travel vignettes that I delight me.

Here are a few samples of Swift’s expert observations:

  • Anticipation is half the fun of traveling.
  • Accept the inevitable bumps in the road with equanimity.  She says, “Every road trip needs a low point” and suggests that  when the going gets tough, “Each morning look at yourself in the mirror and say, “You’re no bargain either.'”
  • “There are no wrong trains.”
  • “It’s not a crime to want to sit in a cafe and not take a walking tour of all those historic monuments in your peripheral vision.”
  • “Beware of quaintitude” (all those “quaint” spots that every tourist goes to see).
  • “There’s always a cat, just when you need one.”

Or consider her advice for finding a good restaurant on a road trip (and haven’t we all been there):

  • Start looking early.
  • Check the menu for signs of age — it should be freshly hand-lettered daily, which indicates that the chef is shopping around for in-season specials.
  • Check the parking lot for local license plates — “If the restaurant is good enough to the locals, it’s good enough for us.”
  • Look for the resident cat.

How can you not love an author who plans to found an Institute of Slow Information in her next life:  “My embroidery studio on the main street of Bayeux will be just one part of my Institute of Slow Information.  I will also teach letter writing, listening, miniature portrait painting, and the art of doing one thing at a time.”

I’ll leave you with just one more passage from the book, a defense of travel by middle-agers:  “You cannot possibly know how much time it takes to learn to treasure this world, how many years it takes to properly cherish your place in it.  As you age, you will find it more and more remarkable, a miracle really, that any of us — you, me — are here at all, the result of an undeserved, infinite gift.  And the older you get, the more you know how much you will miss all this when you are gone.  In the end, the world was not all that changed by your coming, you were not all that crucial to it.  But the world, this world, which you will one day travel in homage and gratitude, this world was everything to you.”